My "Real Safari Experience" vs. a Community Run Nature Reserve

By Abby Blumenthal

When I first signed up for the Communities and Conservation study abroad, I was specifically intrigued and excited for the opportunity to stay at the luxury lodge, nDzuti, for a few nights. I’ve never been able to afford something like that for myself so I was eager to be able to experience it through the program. Going in I was naïve to how these types of lodges are presented to tourists and managed. I thought that these places gave you everything that South Africa Safaris had to offer: they showed you all of the Big 5 and made an effort to teach you about the land and animals in the game reserve. After visiting a wide range of places in South Africa, I came to understand that this isn’t everything the country has to offer and my experience at the lodge was very different than I thought it would be.

Over the course of my stay at nDzuti Safari Lodge, something that was really prominent was the fact that all the people in management were white. The power dynamic of white people in management positions and black people in domestic positions was, in my mind, very wrong. It seems like the wildlife economy in these game lodges are further marginalizing black people rather than helping them. For example, although nDzuti leases the land for the reserve from the Maseke community, the profits are not always equally distributed amongst everyone in the community. Something else that unsettled me was that the black people were very much kept in the background while the white people were pushed to the forefront for our conversations. The lodge felt disconnected from everything that I’ve seen so far that makes South Africa beautiful in order to make tourists “comfortable.” It’s sad to think that this is what most people experience when they come to Africa when the people and communities have so much more to offer. After being in HaMakuya and talking to amazing people about their culture and learning traditional dances my experience at nDzuti felt very white washed. I know that not all game lodges are the same, some are better than others and some are worse than others. My overall experience at nDzuti Safari Lodge felt inauthentic and was in retrospect very uncomfortable.

In contrast, Lekgalametse was a completely different experience: from the management and people to the environment that surrounded us. Lekgalametse is a community managed nature reserve a few hours away from the luxury lodge we stayed at. Several communities that were removed from Lekgalametse during the era of apartheid reclaimed and won the rights to the land. These communities now run and co-manage the reserve together with help from the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD). Hearing people from the community talk to us and tell us about the land was fascinating to say the least. Derrick, our guide and a community leader at Lekgalametse, was extremely knowledgeable about the history of the land.

Everyone we met was so dedicated to being a positive influence on the landscape and in their communities. On our short but informative tour of the reserve, I got to see everything from a waterfall to a rainforest to a stunning mountain view. All the while we were learning about the vast history of each location and learning the plans community leaders had for the future. I felt extremely connected to this beautiful landscape that surrounded me even though I was only there for a short time. I was able to learn about a new type of land management, while also feeling like I was benefiting and contributing to the communities there.

Natalie Miller